Michael Bierut | Slideshows

Invasion of the Neutered Sprites

Happy generic figures encircling the world, designer and date unknown

My first paying job as a graphic designer — strictly speaking, as a commercial artist — was doing the illustrations for a filmstrip, one of those slideshows timed to a recorded soundtrack that was popular in mid-20th century classrooms. It was intended to introduce an inner-city youth employment program to potential participants. It was 1975, the summer I graduated from high school. My work was directed by a charismatic black guy whom I now picture as Idris Elba. Nearly 35 years later, I can only remember two things about that project. First, the soundtrack he had picked was the very hip-to-me "Maiden Voyage" by Herbie Hancock. Second, and more importantly, I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to draw the characters that would represent the participants in this program, whose poses would be used to illustrate the step-by-step requirements of enrollment and successful completion.

My first attempts were ambitious: eyes, noses, hairdos, clothing. Idris was patient. "Listen, you've got to simplify these. I don't want people distracted by these hats and stuff." I tried again. "Better, but can you make it so you can't tell whether they're black or white?" Okay, one more time. "Look, Mike, I don't want people even to know whether these are men or women. They just have to look like...people, you know?" I tried another drawing. Idris was getting antsy. "Right, but these are too stiff looking. Can you make them look a little happier?" Finally I reduced the figures down to their essence: eyeless balls representing heads, atop curvy stars, with the four points representing fingerless, toeless arms and legs. "That's it!" said my first client.

Without really knowing what I was doing, for my first paying job, I had contributed to a plague: the profusion of sexless, blankly cheerful little people that I have come to call Neutered Sprites. They're everywhere. Behold!

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Representing the archetypical homo sapiens isn't easy. Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," from around 1490, was the artist's attempt to map a kind of universal humanity, but it's anything but: white, muscled and long-haired, he looks too much like Owen Wilson to serve as a placeholder for most of the world's population, or at least for me. Over 350 years later, Le Corbusier's Modulor comes a lot closer. But it's still undeniably, even militantly, masculine, a strident standard-bearer for the modernist utopia.

Otto Neurath, "Home and Factory Weaving in England," from Modern Man in the Making, 1939

The quest for a completely neutral approach to human representation led other mid-century designers to pure geometry. Trained as sociologist and political economist, Otto Neurath created a language of symbols called Isotype to convey complex statistical ideas in a simple visual way. There's no mistaking the gender of Neurath's square-shouldered, round-headed figures: he frankly calls them "man symbols," fitting the title of his masterwork, Modern Man in the Making. But they are undoubtably landmarks, and clearly progenitors to the now-ubiquitous bathroom symbols formalized by Roger Cook and Don Shanosky in 1974 as part of the AIGA-led U.S. Department of Transportation Symbol Signs program.

Henri Matisse, Icarus (Icare) from "Jazz," 1943-44

The design world, however, clearly had a need for a less rigid, "friendlier," way of representing people. Hence, starting in the late fifties, the rise of the Neutered Sprites. I suspect that many of those who draw these have a vague image in their minds of the dancing figures in Henri Matisse's collages. These have all the characteristics for which one seeks in vain in Corbu and Neutrath. They are nimble, lively, happy. They are not obviously young or old, black or white, male or female. And one last thing, which is the best of all. Drawing the human figure, as anyone who has taken a life drawing class can testify, is difficult. Neutered Sprites are — or at least they appear to be — really easy to draw. I remember realizing that with great relief back on that very first job. The little bastards just came pouring out of my felt tipped pen, one after another. "Hey," I thought to myself. "This isn't going to take that long after all."

The traditional habitat of the Sprites today, of course, is Nonprofitland. Finding them isn't hard. Look for logos for organizations dedicated to community-building, or health-supporting, or any kind of relentlessly positive thinking. There you will find these little figures by the dozens, prancing around, holding hands, embracing their families, and generally celebrating the universal themes of wellness, happiness, and goodness.

Unfortunately, they have come to have the opposite effect on me. They make me sour and depressed, not least because of my dim memories of having personally contributed to their proliferation. So, I hereby take a sacred pledge: with Da Vinci, Corbu, and Otto Neurath as my witnesses, I swear I will never create another Neutered Sprite. I invite you to join me. Together, we can defeat this epidemic!

Research assistance by Kai Samela and Rishi Sodha

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [44]

I see this scourge on design more so in the health care industry than anywhere else.... much like your examples.

While I think we need to ban these like Comic Sans and Papyrus typefaces, I'm ashamed to say that i don't have an answer as to an alternative.

I don't think we need to go the route of certain pharmaceutical drug companies and start having anthropomorphic bees or circles representing people, but we still have the need to communicate that "people" in the visual sense, are indeed people.

But I think we can start the ban now, and let the masses figure out an alternative.
Josh Aronoff

I would love to hear an alternative to this. I'm working in-house for a Diversity Program, and am constantly coming across sprites, globes, and boxes of crayons.

C'mon, lighten up. Most of the examples in your slideshow are a bit cheesy, but not all. In fact, #6, 13, 20 and 27 in your slideshow are not bad at all.

#6 references a simple scissor cut piece of paper, contextually for the organization being represented rather clever I think. #13 rather eloquently expresses a sense of childlike wonder. Pretty darn hard to do by just using a couple of turned up chins. The NSF logo (#20) I've always been partial to, a great riff on how we tend to reference the structure of an atom. And #27 is a very clever play on the veins of the maple leaf. In the Canadian context, again it's a logical flourish. In my humble opinion, not all cheese is cheesy.

As someone forced to use Trajan nearly every day, I am certain that Trajan is the greater threat to humanity.

With all du, formal respect:

I swear I will never create another Neutered Sprite. I invite you to join me. Together, we can defeat this epidemic!

Fanta, Sie
ja, ja, ja

I think this touches on the design problem of how to design something universal without ending designing something completely generic. I would ask the questions: In the land of nonprofitland and healthcare, is it so bad to have a sort of generic symbol to associate the group emerge out of their collective logos? Is the generic symbol of the cross also an invasion on the world? Is it better to abandon it completely or instead insist that designers find ways to diversify it while remaining its ability to connect graphically to similar organizations?

Its also worthy of note that for better or worse, even the humanist logo is a neutered sprite, stretching out and striving to become iconic.

Might I include the proliferation of tech companies who used a little planet "thing" with an oval swirl "thing" in their logos to demonstrate their global reach. They might be fading now but were a major irritant for more than a few years
Howard Stein

Don't get me wrong, I am all in favor of eradicating the Neutered Sprite, but lets take a moment to appreciate the bit of couth by the designer in neutering this said Sprite.

I don't think abstract anatomical representations of gender would be very flattering. Just watch an old Chris Cunningham video.
Jon Dascola

i, too was forced into creating a neutered sprite, see at www.scetv.org, but it was several years ago when it happened. never again.
marc Cardwell

As others have mentioned, there isn't much of an alternative. I defy you to develop any signifier at all for human that is independent of gender or ethnicity, and come up with something that is not one of these neutered sprites.

In healthcare in particular, we're generally mandated to develop designs which are as inclusive as possible. There are generally two approaches to this, as far as I've been able to determine:

1. Don't reference people at all -- keep the design to the facility or representations of tools, i.e., stethoscopes; or

2. Use neutered sprites.

For some designs the first option is viable, possibly even desirable; however if the logo or graphic must have a human touch to it, sprites are the only option left.

Unless one wants to try to draw the logo version of the Enterprise bridge crew, of course, and represent every major gender and ethnicity, which has its own problems associated with it.

Finally, your 50-ad roundup was a bit unfair. By the 40th slide or so I was feeling overwhelmed, but that's because there were 50 slides containing the sprites. In general, in the wild, one doesn't see so many sprite-bespattered logos in a row.

In any case, don't flog the sprites unless you're able to suggest an alternative.

Fun stuff.

Always interested in "cliché" and why certain images are continually used. Scales for lawyers, hearts for doctors, apples for teachers/education, wrenches for plumbers, car silhouettes for mechanics, eyes or glasses for optometrists, a house for realtors, crosses for Christianity and "Neutered Sprites" for the myriad visuals showing diversity and/or all the other abstract nonprofit endeavors under the sun. Etc., etc. Can’t recall any modern "sprites" before Matisse (can anyone else?). And don't forget the cute paper cutouts of children “holding” hands.

Don't recall who first said it, but there is a reason why some clichés are cliché. Part of our collective unconscious?

Of course, am most impressed by those who take the time to improve or build on a cliché and add something new. (Have seen several creative film or movie company logos over the years using the film strip or camera lens.)

But agreed — too many just go for the obvious and quick and don’t take the time to really craft something unique. Their loss.

Nonetheless, a fun observation.

Joe Moran

I have to confess, I drew nearly half those terrible unisex logos. Conspiracy or naked Capitalism? Discuss.
felix sockwell

While we're on a roll with boycotting things, might we at Internet Explorer to the list?

Too too funny! Suspect I'll be seeing them everywhere now.


Hi, interesting post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for writing. I'll probably be coming back to your blog. ...
runescape gold

Count me in!
I think these sort of things are simply laziness and lack of creativity. Swoops, spirals, etc. have been on the list of design cliches for many years now. I would also now add the human hand print to the lazy designer collection. (Oops, there are book covers to the right that use hand prints or silhouettes.)

More of swoops and spirals on these sites:

Do not forget the great diverse imagery that accompanies many of these "sprites." I have found myself buried in the pages of stock photo sites looking for that one image that includes age, ethnicity, count and relevance for a particular project. And this is for just one of sometimes many images for one piece (rack cards). Ahhh...the torture of non-profit and healthcare work. Just pay a damn photographer for a couple of shots and let the Director of Diversity (or whatever it was called at THAT place) rest.
Daniel Kent

It is inconceivable to consider Matisse’s compositions with cut paper without, in some way, linking them to the play element—the joy of working with simple colors and the fun of “cutting paper dolls”. — Paul Rand 1965

Small world . . . I think all designers are all guilty of creating Neutered Sprites. Paul Rand understood how to put a spin on the cliché.

During high school, in the late 1970’s early 80’s, I took life-drawing classes at Bucks County Community College and was interested in graphic design. On a ski trip, I met Roger Cook, who later showed me his work at his design firm in Princeton, NJ. Inspired by his work, I ended up transferring from MICA to Cooper Union where I met Don Shanosky’s son and a bunch of other very talented designers. But when reading your post, I did not think of “Rijie” I thought of Paul Rand and his essay on Design and the Play Instinct.

What is your favorite Neutered Sprite by Paul Rand?
Check out Direction Magazine from the Summer 1942
Carl W. Smith

is this not really a poke at the graphic quality of those illustrated?
where are all the olympic symbols for instance?
and MB, given that you have kept all of your notebooks, maybe you could off included a peak of yours?

Thanks for this piece of writing. I think DO should strive for this kind more often - this is witty in a natural, balanced way, not another strained attempt to pass as an academic.

The problem the sprites are meant to solve is a valid one. Are not some sprites better than others? Here's my take on the difference.

GOOD SPRITE: The sprite—though seemingly "easy" to depict—is quite the opposite. It is an abstraction of the human form. To be believable (I don't mean realistic.) it needs to capture not only the physical body, but some sense of being human. To make a good abstraction, you need to know your subject in order to make intelligent decisions about what you choose include and to be understand what you are leaving out. Matisse's abstractions are strong because he is anatomically informed, has tremendous skills and knowledge with an equal measure of restraint, and is aware of how depictions of the physical body represent more than our physical and visual reality. In short, a "good" sprite is informed from the inside out.

BAD SPRITE: A bad sprite is a superficial rendition of someone else's sprite. It begins and ends with an external description.

How do you create an extremely simple depiction of a human being that manages to feel "true," that is ageless or genderless without being soulless? Some fine artists spend their entire lives exploring that question.
Miriam Martincic

Hold on a second there Mr. Beirut. You profess to be some sort of authority on the subject of neutered sprites. Upon closer examination, the sex of a few of your neutered sprite examples (e.g. in numbers 9, 24, 33, 37, 43, 48) can be discerned by the fact that they are wearing skirts. Any authority on the species should know that only female sprites wear skirts. One might also reasonably conclude that the non skirt wearers observed consorting with the skirt wearers are male. I mean unless they are from California, Iowa, Vermont or one of those other places where the twin abominations of male/male and female/female sprite consorting are condoned.

Thanks for this post--quite amusing on an otherwise very bleak morning.

Rob Henning

Hasn't Felix Sockwell been doing fantastic "neutral" human figures for years now? His line illustrations, much like these neutered sprites, are simple and abstract, but avoid being cheesy and are instead engaging and inspiring forms. The sprites must go!

I'd love to hear what Mr. Bierut would say to a client who wants to see a representation of universal mankind, people/community, etc., and what he would suggest in place of a neutered sprite. I'm sure he'd come up with an elegant solution, but curiously the article ends without any suggestion of what that might be.

As someone who has run many 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons, believe me, there is a place besides healthcare and nonprofits that the neutered sprite thrives. If I get another race t-shirts with one of these illustrations on it...

One aspect of the Neutered Sprite I'm surprised you didn't discuss was the rise, in recent years, of the bi/gay/lesbian/trans community -- many of whom shun overt sexual stereotyping as well....
L.M. Cunningham

Very interesting, entertaining and relevant article after quite some time on DO. Its very hard to create an absolutely generic image, almost impossible. It will end up looking really boring, and may not communicate anything finally. Any kind of visual representation is an offspring of the prevalent culture, and time.
design is in

I agree with those who say usage of a neutered sprite (brilliant term, by the way) is lazy. I think there are so many more meaningful ways to convey a sense of humanity, solidarity, community, healing, or relational positivity in a logo.

I think all the above can be conveyed in smarter, more meaningful ways through visual metaphors and sensibility of abstract shapes and/or typography.
Matt Steel

Great post. I listened to Herbie while I saw the slideshow. It wasn't pleasant. There is such a tendency to do quick-fix graphic design these days. Silhouettes, geometric shapes fresh off the toolbar, ready made colours, neutered sprites with a little tweak here and slight nudge there.

When a new project comes in, graphic designers in office listen to the brief and then fly away to their PCs, to trawl the internet. I ask them why they do that, sit and look at all those images. All they say is "for reference".

There will be an answer, let it be.


Yes, these are the worst. Except #13 in the slideshow which kind of rules. Makes you long for the days of abstract symbols that could be imbued with whatever the hell meaning you wanted. Or, how about a nice type lock-up?

Carl: The Neutered Sprites on Direction, Summer 1942 are fish (note the hook near the bottom).

A great deal of my clients are from "non-profitland." I am no stranger to neutered sprites and have probably come up with the neutered sprite as the first idea because it exemplifies exactly what the client wants anyway. Merge a couple of circles and play with the Bezier curves and your done. That's why they are so prolific. You're getting paid a fraction of what somebody is earning working for a media conglomerate (or what us designers think are cool projects) so why not give them what they want in the first place? Of course, I admit this is nothing I'm proud of. I've found that your most creative and nuanced ideas that fulfill your own needs as a designer as well as communicate to the audience are squashed on Round 1. As much as I want to never see a neutered sprite again it's always ready to go for Round 2. That is, if I haven't thrown design (and my education) under the bus on Round 1. I think a tear just ran down my face.

Don't forget Pit Pat, though it does have eyes and a mouth. It is, after all, Globochem's magical, pan-sexual, non-threatening spokes-thing. "Take it from me...I Love You!"

I think most designers have a stable of neutered sprites. The point has been made that there's often no avoiding them because the creative guidelines will include the wish for "figures that show no gender, race or age but represent diversity." My favorite is when as many as five or six figures are used to accomplish this. When this is the case, one approach is to use figures with specific traits that make up a diverse group. Not the most original idea, but it can be a refreshing to see some individuality in the vast world of sameness.
Jon Reigelman

here is another one: http://ocgp.org/

“Oh-where, oh-where has my little A-D gone?”

Jon Reigelman, here is a cast of characters on the cover of A-D MAGAZINE that show no gender, race or age but represent diversity.

Vol. 7, No. 3
February- March 1941

JNH: It is Friday let’s fry a few fish.
Carl W. Smith

One thing I would observe is that neutered sprites are very common decorating promotional claims flashes in food packaging. Probably because they are really easy to knock out, and are a little more personable than a tick or husk of wheat. One area where the sprites ring the changes of graphic style is as events pictogtrams for the Olympics, and these themselves tend to set the fashion for how the next wave of sprites will look -there some examples here...


The pictograms for the Japan Olympics were unapologetically male - perhaps the point is when the client want's a wishy washy answer, they get design which reflects this.
Silas Amos

Neutered sprites reflect a little bit of laziness or lack of budget for designers. A very good illustrator can easily come up with an alternative for those sprites. A good illustrator (Steven Salerno is an example) with great skills can create male and female sprites with definitive silhouettes. No nonsense or androgyny here, just good, strong illustrative problem solving. Don't use shortcuts if you don't have to.
James Reyman

This article inspired me to make this:
(with a sprite unapologetically stolen from one of the 50 examples)
Andrew Hornor

I have an idea: let's round up all the ellipses and use them as bolas to capture all the neutered sprites and send them to a distant galaxy, along with misused drop shadows, complementary-color gradients, flares, and typefaces designed to look like children's handwriting. Or better yet--round up the clients who insist upon using such devices and force them to consider more effective, well-thought-out and fresh solutions.
Kim M

Here's another one, MLS Works:
Yasch Siemens

Found in the Archives of American Art, the original neutered sprites!
Jade-Snow Carroll

watch out when you are in Libraries in the UK
Amin Gurey

slide number 23 is my fav, primary color sprites with a flying/tripping hippy sprite to boot.

Count me in too! We should also talk about the "hand," it is another invasion that overly used in non-profit organizations.
Charlotte Chang

I shall never create one of those evil bastards. ever.
Nima Et.

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